How Visual Notes Helped a Student With a Learning Disability Thrive

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Brodie was a bright elementary art student with a quick and dry sense of humor. He liked to draw—he loved to draw—and he was good at it. His solutions to our project problems in elementary art always pushed the limits of the assignments, and as his art teacher, I found my answer to his frequent question of "Can I do it this way?" was "Why not?"

Brodie’s artwork was always humorous and just this side of dark. In a summer art camp that I taught with a colleague, one of the project prompts was to create a papier-mâché animal. While his classmates crafted sculptures of dinosaurs and kittens, he created a demented chicken with angular shapes and a single googly eye. When he came up to show me, he had a gleam in his eye and a smile on his face. That was Brodie.

Little did I know that a notetaking technique I had been learning and researching would become transformational for the academic struggles Brodie would encounter in middle and high school. Two years ago, I had stumbled upon Mike Rohde's book, Sketchnote Handbook, and was drawn into the world of visual notetaking and graphic recording. I was shocked to learn there was a name for how I had always taken notes. More importantly, I wondered why we weren’t teaching students to do this. I knew this technique belonged in education.

Visual notetaking involves using a combination of words and images to make meaning and relevance from verbal or text-based information. Studies show that pictures and images are more likely to be remembered than words alone, which supports the theory that using visuals in notes can improve memory. What’s more, in order to visualize a concept, one has to synthesize information, think critically, and display a high level of understanding of the concept.

I believe we should introduce visual notetaking to students in upper elementary or middle school classes, so these skills are already part of their arsenal by the time they reach data- and content-heavy high school classes. High school students could then leverage the technique to process information and demonstrate their understanding in a wide variety of coursework, from physics and math to history and art.

As a convert to visual notetaking, I began eagerly spreading the word about how this valuable literacy tool could increase students’ memory, engagement, and personal connection to their work. Then Brodie’s mom reached out to me. She had heard about my interest in visual notetaking from another parent, and she wanted to know more.

By this time, Brodie was a freshman in high school and I hadn’t had him as a student for several years. In her email, Brodie’s mom shared that he had done well academically in elementary school but struggled in middle school, when the amount of information he was expected to retain exploded and he couldn’t keep up. He struggled with taking notes, studying, and memorizing content—a struggle that was reflected in his test scores and grades.

In 8th grade, Brodie was diagnosed with dysgraphia, a learning disability that affects a student’s written expression. This term comes from the Greek words dys ("impaired") and graphia ("making letter forms by hand"). Brodie could understand complex concepts and ideas, but translating them back onto the page in written form was difficult. Because of this, conventional notetaking methods weren’t working for him. While he would try to write down important information, in the end, he would feel discouraged and say, "my hand hurts."

Knowing that Brodie was a visual learner and enjoyed drawing, I met with his parents and explained why I thought visual notetaking just might be the tool he needed to help him succeed in high school. That was two years ago. I recently received another message from Brodie’s mom sharing examples of what a difference visual notetaking has made for him.

Brodie’s parents advocated for him to be allowed to use visual notes in class, on homework, and during tests. It was written into his individualized education program that he would be allowed to use the technique whenever necessary to help him learn and process content. To the right is an example of Brodie’s notetaking at the end of freshman year, before he started using visual notes:

Since his sophomore year, when he started taking notes visually, Brodie has started using arrows to create "flow" between related concepts. For example, the sketches below show the order of his chemistry teacher’s presentation. Brodie is still learning to group related information into more digestible "chunks," but he has already made great strides in his ability to organize information. For example, the sketch below shows the order of his chemistry teacher’s presentation.

Brodie uses a balance of writing, drawing, and "breathing space" on the page in order to synthesize content, create connections to his personal experience, and demonstrate his understanding through critical thinking and creativity. He also employs humor—as seen in his "off-topic duck"—and emotion in his figures. The figure is elated when the hypothesis is proven and tearful when it isn’t.

Recently, I asked Brodie how visual notetaking has helped him, and he quickly responded, "Well, it definitely helped me pass chemistry!" Brodie’s notes from a lecture on the history of the atomic theory show some amazing progress. He synthesizes information into a main idea, tracks the flow of the lecture using arrows, and demonstrate his understanding of the content through imagery.

Brodie’s ability to organize and synthesize content has greatly improved due to visual notetaking. To use Brodie’s words, it has become a "treat in the middle of awful" for him. When I asked Brodie what advice he would give to teachers who were thinking about introducing their students to visual notes, he said, "For me, they work better than traditional notetaking. I would tell them they should try it. They have nothing to lose!"

I would add that just as there is very little to lose, there is everything to gain. Brodie is just one student, but for him, this literacy tool has been transformative. Imagine what a positive impact visual notetaking could have if all students had the option to use this tool for demonstrating understanding and adding personal relevance and meaning to their coursework.

I, for one, plan to help spread the word. I asked Brodie to help me by creating a visual note about what visual notetaking has meant to him.

Inspired by Brodie’s success, I also began leading workshops and professional development for educators and districts about how to use visual notetaking in the classroom. Just like Brodie, I believe images can communicate more powerfully than words alone.

A visual note is worth a thousand words.

All images courtesy of the author.

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